Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sophie's Bar

When I heard the news that Sophie’s (and sister bar Mona’s) was going up for sale, I began revisiting the East Village bar where I used to hang out in younger days. On a quiet afternoon this week I had the good fortune to talk with owner Bob Corton. Personable and generous, he told me about the origins of Sophie’s — and his hopes for its future.



In the 1980s, Bob worked for bar owner Sophie Polny, a tough old lady who ran a pub on Avenue A. Bob became manager when Sophie moved her bar (known only as the Polny Restaurant Corp.) to its current location on 5th between A & B, into a space occupied by a joint called the Chic Choc, named for partners Virginia Chicarelli and someone called Chocolate. “Chic Choc” is still written on the doorstep of Sophie’s.

Sophie Polny didn’t like to spend money. Bob recalls, “She only got a jukebox because it came free with the pool table. But she mostly used it for sitting on. The jukebox was her perch.” When she moved to 5th Street, rather than buy new, she brought her old wooden bar with her. It’s still there today, with its stained-glass cabinet doors and cottage-roof motif, a popular style dating back to (from my best guess) the early 20th century.



The bar used to open at 10:00 in the morning for the old Ukrainian men who liked to sit all day over beer and shots of vodka. Said Bob, “If I showed up to open at 10:01, there’d be 8 guys waiting out front to get in and they’d hand me a bag of shit for being late.”

He remembers when the East Village had just a handful of tight-knit bars, mostly Ukrainian. “It was a community,” he said, “When one bar couldn’t pay the rent, they’d have rent parties. The word would go out and everyone went to drink there at the beginning of the month to make sure the bar could make it.”



Bob acquired Polny's bar in 1986. He never renovated and didn't officially name the place. “Everyone just called it Sophie’s, so I kept the name. It seemed lucky.” (Mona’s, bought in 1989, was named after his cat.)

Sophie’s survived tough times in the East Village — when few dared to venture east of Avenue A, when the next-door bistro was a drug bodega (closed after a killing there), and Bob had to worry about squatters using his restrooms to steal not only toilet paper, but also faucets and other fixtures.



Bob doesn’t know what will happen to Sophie’s next. He hasn't yet communicated with any buyers and there is some talk from regulars about buying the place collectively and turning it into a community bar.

He would stay if he could and he has no interest in cashing in on the East Village's new wealth, but health problems keep him from doing the hard work that has to be done. He told me, “Sophie’s is my life. As much as I bitch and moan about it, it’s an extension of me and I hate to give it up.”

13 comments:

Suzannah B. Troy artist said...

very depressing...saw more places with notices they are closing...

Bob Arihood said...

Back in the days of the Chic-choc , long before Sophie's , this location was one of the more likely places to experience a really good fight ....usually including some serious knife-play .I saw some impressive cuttings there .

This way of bar-life of course was of a day that was a long , long time ago in another century ,but it was far more entertaining than watching NYU students throwing-up and giggling .

Karate Boogaloo said...

I went into Sophie's most recently a couple of years ago (I don't spend a lot of time in bars). I was shocked and relieved to see how little (if at all) the place had changed - it was exactly as all the bars I used to hang out in during the 80's used to be. Before everyone got all lounge-y and wannabe chic. The same for the Holiday on St Marks.

Grieve said...

Thanks for this article...and thanks for linking to our Sophie's tribute. We appreciate all your work.

Anonymous said...

i just went to sophies today and feel like a cheater having gone to it after reading it would close. i walked by it so many times and wondered if i could go in, it looked like a nice place for a quiet conversation. since it's hard for me to hear in bars, i'm so sad because i went in there for a quick beer and loved the place. no hipsters until i was about to leave. every one was yelling for jeopardy answers. what a nice guy. all the beautiful big wooden tables were there for great conversation & beer and maybe your own pretzels. i don't understand why nobody was there. i thought these places were good hangout spots. man am i mad i never went there. i wondered if the jukebox got played alot, cuz if it does then there goes my conversation.

i try to find things, and do, but if i didn't read this blog i wouldn't know. and this kind of thing matters to me it's what i'm always thinking about.

thanks again for the blog. i didn't get to mona's yet.

i think i'll hold all my quasi biz meetings and hangouts at sophies before they close. it's just the spot. it would be fun to read some of my anti-hipster poems there. -s

asfokas said...

Very sad news. I've been away from New York for many years but I have fond memories of spending long weekend nights hanging out at Sophie's and Mona's.

Started going to Sophie's in 1987 and then remember hearing that the owner was opening up another bar a few blocks away. Mona's became our main hangout from '89 to '92 since my friend had a crash pad in Stuy town.

I got to know several of the bartenders very well. Most were very cool guys. Memories are starting to flood my brain so I will stop there.

I guess nothing can last forever. From what I've been hearing the area is not worth hanging out in anymore anyway.

jdsasser said...

Sophie's will never die. A good brother stepped in, took over the place with Richie - and the Community Board approved a new liquor license. From everything I've seen and heard - they plan on keeping it pretty much the same. The old guard can still be found drinking there before the hipsters show up. That's where you'll find me - been going as long as I've lived in the village. Long may she wave.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Sophie's will never die, but sadly, sooner or later, they will cater to the money/attention/drama hungry crowd that has descended upon EV. Just look at Continental.

J said...

When they bought Mona's, they opened it up for one night so that the regulars from Sophie's could 'clear up' the booze that came with it.

We drank it dry and then went back to Sophie's to carry on.

One of the best night's out, ever!

I still miss the place.

Anonymous said...

Haven't been to Sophie's since the move but two memories of the old place stand out. Seeing Eddie Dixon and the Dixonaires featuring the Dixonettes perform great sets of rockabilly. Illegal of course.
The other is my brother ordering a shot of Sambuca, downing it and immediately throwing up on the bar. He swore there was something vile in it but all we could do was laugh as poor Sophie shouted "OH MY GOD" again and again as she mopped up the puke with a bar rag. That may actually be the last time I was in there.

Anonymous said...

Haven't been to Sophie's since the move but two memories of the old place stand out. Seeing Eddie Dixon and the Dixonaires featuring the Dixonettes perform great sets of rockabilly. Illegal of course.
The other is my brother ordering a shot of Sambuca, downing it and immediately throwing up on the bar. He swore there was something vile in it but all we could do was laugh as poor Sophie shouted "OH MY GOD" again and again as she mopped up the puke with a bar rag. That may actually be the last time I was in there.

Anonymous said...

It took me 2 years before I could find Sophie's sober.

baz said...

I hung out at Sophies from late 86 till I moved to LA in 91. Here are some random memories ...I remember a painting that parodied Picassos Guernica, depicting sophies patrons at war over a game of pool, it used to hang on the back wall. I also remember that it was so crowded in the early days that it might take you 15 minutes to work your way from the bathroom to the front door - and that you might often meet your lover for the night along the way. I remember linking butts together from the ash tray to create a cigarette with my friend John from Helmet and biting into a piece of the berlin wall , because i thought someone was handing me mushrooms ( i broke a tooth) . Months later remember spitting the cap from that tooth out while laughing... and then everyone crawling across the floor with me, lighting matches to look for it. I'm 50 now and i think of those times often. Ironically i moved back to NY recently, (way uptown) but i won't' go back ... i'm sober now ... but I don't think it's the drink so much as much as being young and crazy that i miss ... Sophies will always hold a special place in my heart.